Mattila, Leech, Reuter/Feigum, Fox, Oke, Savoy, Plenk / Belohlávek
Janacek's last complete opera builds to an astounding moment of revelation: not that the eponymous (anti-)heroine is who she is -- for the show makes little sense unless the audience, at least, has known it from the start -- but that she was once young and powerless and not over-full of the world's knowledge. She tells, at last, the story of her involuntary election at sixteen, transformed by an Emperor's fateful choice from a courtier's daughter into one both unattached and uniquely free from all ordinary necessity. Life, youth, money, prominence -- all are hers, without limit or effort for many ordinary lifetimes.
This much is entirely consistent with Karel Capek's original stage play, though absent Capek's over-elaborately arranged pseudo-courtroom setting. What comes next, however, quite diverges. Where Capek gives a clever but prolix account of E.M.'s disillusionment/boredom via long life -- inspiring an even more prolix (and rather duller) philosophical essay on the matter by Bernard Williams -- Janacek offers a tragedian's finale. This, this, and this happened, the heroine explains, and how empty and small all your aims have revealed themselves to be! (power [Prus], wealth/rich living [Gregor], order [Kolenaty], love [Kristina], lust [Hauk] and humanism [Vitek] per Capek's schematic per-character rendering) -- and yet... Death, a mere stage-clearer in the play (as it returns, with E.M. and the formula's destruction, to maintaining our illusions of value by shortening our perspectives), has the opera's real say: as the heroine awakes from short stupor to Orthodox liturgical (and, in Elijah Moshinsky's excellent staging touch, a curtain of stars that effaces the city interiors of all previous action) for her last and greatest outburst, she recognizes the grandeur of God's universe again in the undimmed and unsullied greatness of death.
This is catharsis not only for her but the opera audience, who leave with a sense of the world opposite the play's audience. Instead of a dry, black-comedic "be small and don't look too deeply, lest all your values evaporate", we are reminded that as low or ultimately futile the human values we're so torturously engaged in chasing may turn out to be, we were not born into a world so uninterestingly debaseable. For the secret of this show's appeal is that we know -- or suspect -- or fear -- that its nihilistic side is, if not entirely true, true at least in and about some very significant particulars. (Did Janacek feel this way about his futile but creatively productive love for Kamila Stosslova?) To probe this lurking but generally unspeakable thought in full-on tragic style is, among other things, intensely liberating.
In presenting this tragic Makropulos, Karita Mattila was -- as ever -- an unreservedly massive presence. She is, as in the last (movie) Salome but not in the 2004 original, showing bodily signs of age, but the spirit and voice are still as overpowering and clear as one expects. Her title character was not one to shrink from life by nature, and the most striking thing about the initial acts is the depth of sound and engagement one hears when she touches on something important. Just the fire and wistfulness in her voice as she talks about her dear Pepi Prus tells us from the first that it was not lack of personal inclination or sensibility that put her off sentimental attachment, and not mere necessity or compulsive habit that makes her such an effective meddler and seducer afterwards. As the grand old lady who doesn't give a crap (quasi-youthful edition), she is a worthy exponent of the god's-eye view (or devil's, if you like) on human aspiration, and a worthy apologist for death at the finish -- a tragic heroine for an ultimately tragic piece.
Her colleagues in the opera all remain the black-comic figures of Capek, though not lacking in sympathetic feeling for that. The Met, as it often does, cast these small parts superbly, not least young Lindemann soprano Emalie Savoy, whose arrestingly textured sound and presence made the naive and somewhat hapless Kristina nevertheless embryonically interesting. And if critics and the administration tired of the sometimes-bludgeoning forcefulness of the originally rather lyric tenor Richard Leech by the late 90s, that same quality was quite effective in this Janacek return as the earnestly impassioned Gregor.
The opera ends in a tragic one-woman show, but the contrasting mode before that point is comedy, and it was the comic timing and spirit of the ensemble that made May 8th's penultimate performance the greatest of the run, devastatingly precise in its skewering of human folly before the not-quite-"O Freunde, nicht diese Töne" of the conclusion. Meanwhile, as in previous appearances, Jiri Belohlávek's way with the orchestra became ever more rhapsodically free with repetition, making the flow of Janacek's music -- even here, in the urban setting, incorporating the surges one hears elsewhere as nature (e.g. the river in Jenufa) -- ever more irresistible and urgent over the course of the run.
With neither Mattila nor Belohlávek now scheduled at the Met next season, I hope all local readers got to see this show at least once.